A Century of Lenin’s Imperialism

A Century of Lenin’s Imperialism

In the Preface to the French and German editions of Imperialism, Lenin writes….

the main purpose of the book was, and remains, to present, on the basis of the summarised returns of irrefutable bourgeois statistics, and the admissions of bourgeois scholars of all countries, a composite picture of the world capitalist system in its international relationships at the beginning of the twentieth century—on the eve of the first world imperialist war [1]

Today, we are living through the second decade of the 21st century, containing sublated within its development all the historical unfolding of the 20th century and the progressive broadening and deepening of the structural crisis of the reproduction of the whole capital system on a global level. Almost a century of development of the capitalist system has taken place between the writing of Lenin’s famous work on Imperialism and the stage at which the capitalist system has arrived today.

One can observe, of course, certain features of Lenin’s description of the pre-first world war Imperialism of his time historically modified and presented today but what we have to acknowledge is that we have now most definitely entered a new stage of development of the capitalist system. It is a stage fundamentally characterised by its structural crisis and the ‘activation of its absolute limits’…

‘….despite the major defeats of the past the deciding issue is that the end of capital’s historical ascendancy in our own age – through the extension of its domination even to the most distant and formerly isolated pockets of the planet – has brought with it the activation of the absolute limits of this system of social metabolic control. […..], the margin of displacing the system’s contradictions becomes ever narrower and its pretences to the unchallengeable status of causa sui palpably absurd, notwithstanding the once unimaginable destructive power at the disposal of its personifications. For through the exercise of such power capital can destroy humankind in general – as indeed it seems to be bent on doing just that (and with it, to be sure, also its own system of control) – but not selectively its historical antagonist.’ [2]

When Lenin was writing Imperialism, capital had not at that time entered its period of unfolding structural crisis. It is within this newly-posited historical context of capital’s structural crisis that we must now re-evaluate Lenin’s contribution. The basic features of Lenin’s conception of Imperialism are outlined in his book. These are..

1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed. [3]

The ‘truth’, the outcome, of the dynamic and capital-expansion of the century-long phase of ‘capitalist imperialism’ is the currently unfolding phase of capitalist globalisation which is the epoch of capital’s structural crisis with all those ‘first and second order mediations’, relations and aspects which Meszaros describes comprehensively and in detail in Beyond Capital.

The impression we are presented with above in Lenin’s five part characterisation of imperialism is a system which is primed for growth, dynamically-moving forwards into its latest phase. It is not industrial capitalism in the course of its historic ascendancy during the 18th and 19th centuries but rather its 20th century phase of ‘monopolist’ expansion into it truly becoming – ‘for itself’ (fur sich) – a global system of production and distribution which simultaneously posits, towards the end of this century, its structural crisis (long ago predicted by Marx) which is historically potentiated within the capital relation itself.

Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions. [4]

This was a phase of capitalist development in which there was still room for international capital to move, maneouvre and expand. The epoch of ‘wars and revolutions’ turned out to be more imperialist wars for the re-division of resources and markets than socialist revolutions. There was not a single successful revolution in any major capitalist country. The revolutionary struggles of the German proletariat were crushed or hobbled by the capital-agencies of Social Democracy, Stalinism and Fascism. ‘Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development….in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun‘. This phase had only ‘begun’ when Lenin put pen to paper and wrote Imperialism. His conception that the coming century would be a century of wars and socialist revolutions was demonstrated to be hopelessly optimistic by the actual unfolding of the historical process itself. Rather Imperialism was a period in which Lenin viewed capitalism..

growing with the greatest rapidity in the colonies and in overseas countries. Among the latter, new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan). The struggle among the world imperialisms is becoming more acute. The tribute levied by finance capital on the most profitable colonial and overseas enterprises is increasing. In the division of this “booty”, an exceptionally large part goes to countries which do not always stand at the top of the list in the rapidity of the development of their productive forces. [5]

The expanding productive and money capital of Lenin’s ‘monopolies and banks’ have been replaced by transnational corporations which astride the globe like colossi and the giant Leviathans of finance capital. Capital ‘for export’ – as distinct from, and as well as, commodities ‘for export’ – no longer holds the same degree of significance in terms of the quantitative expansion of the capital order as it did at the start of the 20th century. Lenin emphasised this export of capital when he wrote that..

The capital-exporting countries have divided the world among themselves in the figurative sense of the term. But finance capital has led to the actual division of the world. [6]

The whole globe is today simply the ontological arena of capital. ‘Export and import of capital’ has lost its former degree of ‘expansive’ significance and capital itself has increasingly taken on a historically more problematic ‘intensive’ dimension as a ‘broad spectrum’, globally dominating social relation of production and distribution which has entered its epoch of structural crisis.

Capital is free to move wherever it finds the highest rate of surplus value. The are no spheres of influence inhibiting this surplus-value-seeking movement. What were formerly some of the biggest capitalist powers have become reduced and supplanted by powers that were formerly colonies or in the grip of foreign domination. India and China are the obvious examples here, but increasingly Brazil and other economies in Asia.

Global capital now has its own ‘representative’ global organisations which have been formed to articulate the interests of capital on a global scale by attempting to bring together and consolidate the interests of different and competing sections of transnational and finance capital. The ‘division of the world amongst the biggest capitalist powers’ has given way to a world in which capital itself is the ‘biggest power’ and the ‘capitalist powers’, taken collectively or competing with each other individually, pledge fealty and merely serve at the global table of this power.

With Lenin, we have the division of the world between the most powerful nation states and their appropriation of the natural resources of the colonies, exploitation of its seemingly endless cheap labour-power and the use of these parts of the globe as captive markets for their ‘home-produced’ commodities. The activities of the monopolies and cartels are mediated by the political domination of the competing major European powers and the United States in their different and varied ‘spheres of influence’. The political centrality of the nation state in the regulation of monopoly capital remains as does the constant possibility and threat of war between the rival imperialist powers for the conquest and re-conquest and for the division and re-division of the globe and the planet’s resources in the service of rival capitals.

In Lenin’s conception of Imperialism, the world is still divided up between the capitalist powers and monopolies to such a degree – ‘spheres of influence’ – that the free flow of capital is still hindered by these political ‘spheres of influence’ and the economic ‘interests’ of nation statehood.

The epoch of the latest stage of capitalism shows us that certain relations between capitalist associations grow up, based on the economic division of the world; while parallel to and in connection with it, certain relations grow up between political alliances, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the “struggle for spheres of influence”. [7]

These same nation states today now go out of their way, are positively gushing, in order to encourage the free flow of transnational capital into their geographical demesnes and to facilitate the flow of capital to areas of the globe where the rate of exploitation of labouring humanity is nothing short of obscene. Nation states are now so totally enthralled to and in the grip of global capital, which is so powerful, that it can play one off against another in order to get the best deal and national conditions and parameters for its ‘investment’. For example, India is turning out ten times as many equally well-qualified Chemistry and Engineering graduates as Britain every year. This is a potential and actual bonanza for transnational capital. For the chemical and pharmaceutical corporations, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for them to invest in Europe, Japan or the USA when all the technicalised labour-power can be employed at one-tenth the cost in India and specialists can be imported when and if required. With loose tax arrangements and endemic corruptsi, the icing is nicely piped onto the capitalist cake.

The IT corporations can produce a laptop computer in Chinese factories (all parts, etc,(constant) + labour power(variable) + ‘faux frais’, etc) for no more than £75. The same computer is on sale in British retailers for £500. Not only is the rate of exploitation (rate of surplus value) phenomenally obscene but such a global mechanism of production and distribution represents a stupendous transfer of value from regions such as China to the more “developed” regions of the capitalist world. The present global relations contain this mechanism of conveying incredible magnitudes of value from one part of the world to another at the inevitable human ‘cost’ to the lives of the extremely exploited proletariat in regions of production such as China, Asia and Latin America.

Capital now finds itself in a qualitatively different epoch beyond the stage described in Lenin’s Imperialism. Some writers are describing the current stage as the ’empire of capital’. If this is apt, then it is indeed a global ’empire’ where boundaries – unlike with previous empires in human history – have ceased to be geographical. Its ‘boundaries’ now become a function of the degree of exploitative intensity to which it subjects labour-power and a function of the degree to which Nature in all its magnificent creation becomes subjected to the most nauseating and disturbing forms of destruction, barbarism and ‘trashing’. As Meszaros shows, the production of ‘generalised waste’ becomes endemic or intrinsic to this destructive reproduction of capital-in-crisis.

We live in a world of capital where its free-flow is not hindered but actually encouraged and facilitated. Capital dictates the rules of the game globally and the division of the world between rival imperialist powers no longer serves as a brake on its global adventures. Constant capital itself is highly mobile. Factory units are now designed for dismantling, shipping and re-erection in different parts of the globe. Workers on strike in the United States, for example, can find themselves ‘locked out’ one week and a month later ‘their’ factory simply ‘asset-stripped’ or actually re-located to China where workers are paid one-tenth the wage. Capital becomes articulated globally as the dominant, all-powerful social relation of production and distribution which controls every aspect of the reproduction of the social metabolic process.

The new ‘globalised’ situation is the age of the extension and consolidation of the global dominance of transnational capital which is a development onwards from mere ‘monopoly or cartel’. The capital assets of a single transnational corporation can equal the GDP of many small countries put together. Compared to these transnationals, the assets of the ‘monopolies’ of Lenin pale into insignificance. The IMF, World Bank, US Federal Reserve, WTO and, increasingly, Chinese financial institutions serve the God of capital more than any fundamentalist fanatic could ever serve their god. Today China is the world’s banker. The vaults of its banks are stuffed with dollars, euros, yen and bullion.

The capital they loan out is not only used to purchase their commodities but is serviced as short or long term debt with interest. It won’t be long before China is the largest economy on the globe. Posited in this relationship between China (creditor) and the ‘West’ (debtor) is the explosive potential for a massive deepening of capital’s crisis and the profound dislocation of the transference of value around the globe. The astronomical figures for the magnitude of what Marx refers to as ‘fictitious capital’ (Volume 3, Capital) is not one but many ticking timebombs waiting to detonate in the course of this coming century of capital’s structural crisis. A series of powder kegs of history under the body of the global capitalist system waiting to explode. A default in the US debt alone will throw the world’s capital markets and system of production and distribution into chaos. The gates of a man-created hell will swing open and out will rush the full panoply of the demons and spectres of human history to haunt humankind until it goes forward to exorcise these from society once and for all by the only means possible : global socialist revolution. The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ will it happen.

We have also witnessed the growing eclipse of the UN by the US as the policeman of the globe with its client states behind it. When I became a communist at age 16, I was told by an older comrade that when you see the initials ‘UN’ on a military vehicle you should always read ‘US’. Those states which refuse to sign up to the Pax Americana become liable to military action in order to bring them into its orbit. The Pax Romana employed remarkably similar tactics in order to establish, expand and consolidate its rule. But here, in the form of the American state power of capital, we have the representation par excellence of the interests of global capital.

Initially, the Romans tried to recruit the local ruling classes of unconquered people to their imperium. If this did not work, they simply crushed and enslaved them with an unremitting brutality. Perhaps the most terrible example of this was Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians (present day Romania) at the start of the second century AD, commemorated in his famous column which still stands in Rome today. The whole people was either massacred or enslaved and the rich culture of the Dacians simply levelled and scoured from the surface of history. The conquest of Carthage in the second century BC saw the people enslaved and the whole physical infrastructure of the city dismantled – every brick and block – and shipped off to Rome or elsewhere for recycling in the construction projects of the late Republic. Carthago delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed], was the constant refrain of the Roman statesman, Cato the Elder.

The Roman empire was based on the labour of the slave or the colonus, taxation, tribute and plunder. And Rome was a coherent whole in one region of the Earth with geographical boundaries. The ’empire of capital’ is based on capital’s global dominance and exploitation of wage-labour where every part of the globe and every sphere of human life has become integrated into its domain. The US remains the ‘Rome’ of capital in the 21st century. Former colonial powers and the UN must now pay homage to this new Rome with its new Pax Romana, a Pax Americana.

We are now living and struggling through a different phase in the development of capitalism whose fundamentally-distinguishing characteristic is the structural crisis of the capital relation itself. In his book, Not Without A Storm, Cliff Slaughter writes that..

‘Contrary to what we believed and based our political lives on, then, the twentieth century was not the ‘epoch of working-class socialist revolution’. Rather, it was the epoch of the maturing of the conditions for socialist revolution, by way of great increases in the productivity of labour and ‘globalisation’, bringing the capital system to the onset of its structural crisis; and within this process, the transition of historically backward countries to capitalism. [8]

Trotsky himself, in The Transitional Programme, states unequivocally that ‘mankind’s productive forces stagnate’. This notion itself informs his whole conception in this programme. But what we have witnessed since 1940 is a tremendous development of these productive forces. In fact, to a degree that, in the past, we may have considered impossible within the framework of capitalist relations of production and distribution. Computerisation, automation, robotics, pioneering developments in biotechnology, etc, and the interfacing of technologies (e.g. computer-aided design, computer-controlled manufacture, etc) has increased the productivity of labour to such a high degree that on the basis of the further development of this technology alone, socialism is not only entirely possible but revealing, with each passing year, to be absolutely necessary for its further development. Trotsky’s prognosis, and especially in his perspectives for the Fourth International, was hopelessly misplaced. In his interview with Kingsley Martin (editor of the New Statesman) in 1937, Trotsky argued that the Fourth International would be a mass movement within five years. What happened to this prophecy?

The simple truth which we have to face is that in the unfolding of the twentieth century…

the objective conditions for the social revolution had in fact not matured; and this is contrary to what many of us – not without cause – believed. They were coming to maturity only over (say) the last quarter of the century – in today’s conditions of the onset of capitalism’s structural crisis and globalisation [9]

It is within this context that we can locate and understand the whole nature of capitalist development within the twentieth century. And, more importantly, our response to it and our activities as communists in the course of this past century’s development. Moreover, we can proceed – with a more concrete degree of adequacy –  to seek to grasp the underlying conditions which led to defeats and betrayals of one kind or another in which millions of proletarians and revolutionaries perished under the rule of capital. We can also fully grasp why Social Democracy (and especially its opportunism which Lenin refers to in Imperialism) and Stalinism were capable of delivering millions into the hands of Fascism and the Gulags. Today, as capital’s structural crisis broadens and deepens, the roadblock of Stalinism to the emergence of revolutionary agency has vanished with the fall of its historical basis since 1989. Stalinism has done significant damage to the struggle for socialism but its fall has removed an obstacle – to that same struggle – the significance of which cannot be overestimated.

Imperialism as the ‘highest stage of capitalism’ was understood by many communists as the ‘final stage’. Clearly, this was not the case. Hegel teaches us that the ‘highest’ stage of development of anything is also, simultaneously, that point at which it starts to decline. Ancient Rome reached its highest point of development in the 2nd century AD under the Antonines but the end of this same century witnessed the start of the stormy crisis of the third century. The point of flowering of a culture is also the point at which it begins to go to seed.

Marx himself outlined [10] that the global movement towards communism would be a long, drawn-out, ‘painful’, historical process which would ‘pass through different phases of class struggle’. In the course of this enduring process, the class of capitalists will offer resistance and, of course, at times they will have their victories and this will, to a certain degree, serve to impede the movement towards communism. But the unfolding of this historical process towards communism has actually started and this tendency will intensify the course of the 21st century. There are not and will not be ‘any speedy solutions through the success of political revolutions’. [11] Marx’s ‘guiding principles’ in regard to ‘time scale’ remain ‘valid’. Meszaros further writes that..

‘…the undeniable deviation of the objective historical trends from the ‘classical model’ raised with a certain urgency the complications of any transition to socialism, carrying with it the necessity of elaborating specific theories of transition, in accordance with the new modalities of crisis and the changing configuration of socio-economic conditions and historical circumstances. It was in response to such trends of development that [….] Lenin defined Imperialism as the ‘Highest Stage of Capitalism’. […..] To be sure, Lenin, too, saw the new, higher stage as the ‘last phase’  –  and in that sense his conception is equally subject to major historical qualifications. Nevertheless, he pushed into the centre of analysis the problematic of capital’s ruthless global expansion and its manifold contradictions as graphically exemplified by the inherent structural weaknesses – to the extent of a potential rupture – at determinate linkages of its global chain’. [12]

Lenin also ‘saw the new, higher stage as the ‘last phase’ of capitalism. Today…

‘Some would-be Marxists hold that Lenin’s ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ is still the key to our epoch, even though it has been left behind by history. More important for our purposes is the way in which his writings on leadership and class-consciousness, developed in conditions of Tsarist oppression and illegality, were taken by Communist Parties all over the world to be the recipe for ‘vanguard parties’ in all conditions. Trotsky wrote brilliantly and led the principled fight against the Stalinist distortion of Lenin’s heritage, but his notions of leadership, party and the nature of the epoch now need a thoroughly critical review. Meszaros makes the clearest case for a renewal of Marxism: his reaffirmation of the revolutionary role of the working class, however, poses the most difficult question of all – how in practice will this social agency necessary to put an end to the rule of capital be prepared, forged, organised?’ [13]


[1] Lenin. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Preface to the French and German editions.


[2] Meszaros, Istvan. Beyond Capital. Towards a Theory of Transition. Merlin Press, London. (1995). p.145

[3] Lenin, Ibid., Chapter 7, Imperialism as a special stage of capitalism.

[4] Lenin, Ibid., Chapter 7

[5] Ibid., Chapter 7

[6] Ibid., Chapter 4, Export of Capital

[7] Ibid., Chapter 5, Division of the world amongst capitalist organisations

[8] Slaughter, Cliff. Not Without A Storm : Towards A Communist Manifesto for the Age of Globalisation. Index Books, London. (2006). p.285 (The Twentieth Century : A Hypothesis)

[9] Ibid., Not Without A Storm, p.286

[10] Marx. The Civil War in France. Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966. p.172

[11] Meszaros. Beyond Capital. p.438. Marx’s Unfinished Project

[12] Meszaros., Ibid. p.438

[13] Slaughter, Cliff. Bonfire of the Certainties – The Second Human Revolution. Publisher : Lulu.com. (2012), Introduction.

Shaun May

October 2013




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